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Kids Count reports 25.9 percent of Gregg County children impoverished

By Reese Gordon rgordon@news-journal.com
Dec. 3, 2013 at 10 p.m.


Nearly 26 percent of Gregg County children were considered impoverished in 2011, according to a report released Tuesday.

The 7,987 - 25.9 percent - Gregg County children who comprised the 2011 statistic represented a 23 percent increase in the rate of Gregg County children living in poverty in 2000, according to the latest data from the Kids Count report done by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an independent research organization which advocates for low-income Texans. In 2000, 6,481 children - 22 percent of all Gregg County children - lived in poverty.

Statewide, there was a 47 percent increase in the rate of children living in poverty from 2000 to 2011. That outstripped the 18 percent increase in the state's child population during the same period.

Twenty-seven percent of Texas children were living in poverty in 2011, a rate that put the Lone Star State among the nine worst states.

Poverty is a key measure of child well-being, according to the report, which added that poverty can create "toxic stress" that alters children's developing brains and bodies and is related to gaps in health and education.

Among the reasons Texas' child poverty rate has grown is that despite the state's relatively low unemployment rate, it has a high rate of jobs that pay minimum wage or less, said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Dennis Cullinane, executive director for the East Texas Food Bank, said the organization has worked with Northeast Texas schools to distribute food to the most needy students.

Cullinane noted that not all children living below the poverty line are "food insecure."

According to the website FeedingAmerica.org, 7,040 - 22.7 percent - children in Gregg County are food insecure.

"The school administrators have to identify those children," he said. "We can't feed them all. They have to choose the most needy. If you're not nourishing the brain, you're not going to learn. These kids needs an education."

Longview, Pine Tree and Hallsville school districts have made a concentrated effort to alleviate student hunger by adopting the Backpack Meal program, which provides sustenance to students in need.

Longview ISD spokesman Adam Holland more than 800 students in the district are aided by the district's Backpack Meal program because they don't have enough to eat.

"Those are just the ones we've identified," he said. "Have we missed a few? I'm sure we have."

Holland said the number of food insecure children in Longview ISD represents about 10 percent of the district's total student population.

The program, funded strictly on donations from community members and organizations, has helped keep students fed by filling backpacks with non-perishable food items that the students take home at the end of every week.

"We look for kids who are hungry, period," he said. "Kids who come to school on a Monday and haven't eaten over the weekend. Kids who are regularly asking for seconds in the cafeteria."

Longview ISD's Backpack Meal program was started with funding from the Rotary Club of Longview. From 2009 to 2011, the program was funded by a grant from the East Texas Council of Governments.

But that money is gone and the program relies solely on the donations from churches and individuals in the community, Holland said.

"Alpine Church of Christ, for example. They're right up the hill from J.L. Everhart Elementary," he said. "They approached us and said, 'Hey, we want to do the backpack program here.' Of course we're happy to let them do it because we are always scrounging for money. These churches want to reach out and help their neighborhood school and that is what's going on."

According to Hallsville ISD spokeswoman Carol Greer, the district started the Bobcat Nutritional Backpack Project during the 2007-2008 school year when it discovered that 189 students were "totally" dependent on meals they received in the cafeteria.

Some students in the district are also in need of shoes, Hallsville High School English teacher Jennifer Roberts said.

For the last nine years, Roberts has helped organize the high school's Shoes For Kids Drive, which will be held 11:30 a.m. Friday at Payless ShoeSource Store and Chuck E. Cheese in Longview.

The Shoes For Kids Drive is funded solely on the donations of high school student and the children who are in need of shoes are identified by their teachers, Roberts said.

Roberts said 80 high school students will accompany 80 Hallsville ISD children in eating pizza and playing games at the restaurant. Afterward, each child will receive a $25 gift card to buy shoes at Payless. Each child will be assigned a high school student to "buddy" with.

Roberts said the event has been a humbling experience for the high school students who are involved with the program.

"It's one thing to conceptionally understand poverty and its another thing to see it," she said. "We have some of the high school kids in tears because they've never seen poverty before. I know that we're helping the younger kids and they're really benefiting from the shoes, but the older kids are really understanding their social responsibility."

- The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.

<h3>Child poverty in Northeast Texas</h3><table class="tableizer-table"> <tbody> <tr class="tableizer-firstrow"> <th>County</th> <th>2000</th> <th>2007</th> <th>2011</th> </tr> <tr> <td>Camp</td> <td>882 (28.6%)</td> <td>945 (27.8%)</td> <td>1,148 (35.7%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Cass</td> <td>1,872 (25.8%)</td> <td>1,789 (27.8%)</td> <td>1,1783 (26%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Gregg</td> <td>6,481 (22%)</td> <td>7,079 (23.2%)</td> <td>7,987 (25.9%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Harrison</td> <td>3,748 (23%)</td> <td>3,648 (23.7%)</td> <td>4,262 (25.2%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Marion</td> <td>789 (32.2%)</td> <td>834 (38.6%)</td> <td>653 (33.3%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Morris</td> <td>850 (25.9%)</td> <td>774 (26%)</td> <td>898 (30.7%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Panola</td> <td>1,133 (20.1%)</td> <td>1,036 (19.4%)</td> <td>1,303 (22.4%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Rusk</td> <td>2,515 (21.8%)</td> <td>2,121 (19.2%)</td> <td>2,901 (23.4%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Smith</td> <td>9,347 (20%)</td> <td>10,309 (20.5%)</td> <td>12,666 (23.6%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Titus</td> <td>1,950 (22.9%)</td> <td>1,816 (20.4%)</td> <td>2,578 (26.1%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Upshur</td> <td>2,172 (23.4%)</td> <td>2,151 (23.8%)</td> <td>2,375 (24.5%)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Wood</td> <td>1,950 (24.1%)</td> <td>1,786 (20.1%)</td> <td>2,270 (27.5%)</td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

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